Thursday, March 03, 2005

I first considered this post a few days ago, when I saw the NYTimes picture of the Pope after his surgery. I held off because if I don't tread lightly, the implications of what I have to say are going to seem insensitive at best and diabolic at worst.

Yet the more I think about it, the more I'm convinced that both the Pope and the Chief Justice need to resign.

Just so there's no confusion, let me be clear: I am not saying this because each is ailing in extremis. Illness does not preclude productivity, and I have no doubt that John Paul can still accomplish wonderful things for Catholicism or that Judge Rehnquist can continue to make significant contributions to the American judiciary.

The problem is that for better or worse, both the Papacy and the Chief Justiceship are highly symbolic positions. As the heads of their organizations, they are not merely the mouthpieces for the Catholic Church and the Federal Courts, respectively; their own personal image and persona reflects a good deal on the vitality and health of those organizations themselves.

For the Courts, this is not as significant because Justices are typically low-profile, and the image of even the Chief Justice only rarely appears in the press.

But for the Church, the Pope's illness is especially salient. The Catholic hierarchy is already seen as too detached and/or inept, and now, following Pope's tracheotomy, their leader is quite literally speechless to comment on the world. It is difficult to conceive of a more telling symbol.

For that reason, John Paul needs to step down. He can still illustrate the resilience of faith and the dignity of human life from a position other than the papacy. But what he cannot continue to do -- if only out of respect for the many good works of the Church's members -- is to obdurately project to the world an undeniable image on their behalf of the Church's frailty and impotence.


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